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Melodiya Records

I was about 10 years old. We were sitting crossed legged on the parquet floor in the assembly hall of my Junior school in Fulham, London. It was 1958. Whilst we were waiting for the Headmistress to make her grand entry, it was usual for some music to be played on the gramophone. This particular morning a teacher placed a beautiful His Master’s Voice record on the gramophone. As the first few bars rang out I felt the hair on my head and forearms stand erect. I was physically moved by this wonderful music – music the like of which I had never heard before. I shuddered with delight. This memory remains with me as vivid today as the day it happened. I new nothing of orchestras, symphonies, concertos or conductors but it was years later that I learned the name of this piece – Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto.

In my late teens I made it a point to get every available piece of recorded Tchaikovsky music. But the record shops were so disappointing. I had seen a catalogue of Tchaikovsky’s musical output but I just could not understand why there was so little of it on disc. All you could find were the last three symphonies, Swan Lake and Nutcracker Suites, the 1812 Overture, the Violin concerto, and the First Piano Concerto. The shelves were full of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner. Was the West just a bit prejudiced against Russian music? I recall reading a fusty old book in the Fulham Library which reviewed Tchaikovsky’s major works. There was not one word of praise to be found in it. Why was it that this music I adored and that reached my very soul was rejected by Western musicologists?

In the late 60s, a friend of mine told me he saw something called The Souvenir de Florence in the record shop. I remember running down Fulham High Street to buy it. I played it over and over again. I later discovered that an importer of Russian Melodya records was doing business at the top of a rickety staircase in a Victorian building next door to Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross Road in London. This was my opening to hitherto unknown works of Tchaikovsky. The recordings were hugely expensive for an impecunious university student but I was happy to go without food just for the opportunity to hear this music. I found The Oprichnik, Symphonies 1, 2, and 3, the Orchestral Suites, Piano Concerto No. 2 and many others. The recordings were of a dreadful quality – often distorted, and the boxes stank of animal glue – but it just didn’t matter.

Graham Wright

Graham Wright, what a wonderful story. It closely reflects my own experience. As I sit here listening to the wealth of fresh inspiration issuing from the BBC’s Tchaikovsky Experience, I recall my early encounters with Tchaikovsky, launched by 1812 in the classroom when I was 12. I will never forget the first time I heard Romeo and Juliet in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, played by the Halle Orchestra. It must have been the early seventies. I can feel now the sense of intense anticipation as the exposition paved the way teasingly towards the development. My feeling that all hell was about to let loose was not wrong. I hardly realised though, how great the piece was, at that time it was mostly about physical excitement.

Shortly afterwards a series of great composer music guides appeared, I think by the BBC, and each contained a 10-inch vinyl recording. There were five Tchaikovsky editions and one was the Violin Concerto. The impression it made was so strong that I remember now the exact points of the score that corresponded with my walk from school as I played the music through in my head. Sometimes I ran home at lunch time to hear it again.

I recall reading that the symphonies were dark, depressing and riddled with neurotic melancholy. So I delayed hearing them. Strange then, that when I deep venture into these deeper waters, the experience was just exciting as Romeo.

So many years later, Tchaikovksy’s music remains a voyage of discovery. New musical relationships and subtleties constantly emerge from the texture. Only a couple of years ago, I got to know Iolanta, and found it as gratifying and wonderful as anything he wrote, quiet, unshowy, gentle, symphonic and profound, like so much of his music, unjustly neglected.

During the Tchaikovsky Experience I shall be running home from work to catch works that even now languish in obscurity, despite my advancing years.

Norman Armstrong

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This page was last updated on 05 November 2013